OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority named a team of regional firms to sell a $50 million issue set for late this month, out-of-state investment bankers offered a familiar excuse for why Wall Street was shut out of the deal: politics.
"That deal was done before we ever put stamps on our proposals," complained a Dallas-based banker for a Wall Street firm. "You can make the best bid in the world, but you cannot compete against those kinds of political connections."
While some saw the complaining as sour grapes, others suspected that senior manager Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., together with the Oklahoma-based T.J. Thompson & Associates and Leo Oppenheim & Co., were hired as a payback for an estimated $56,800 in political contributions and fund-raising for Gov. David Walters -- a quid pro que that officials have denied.
Indeed, the political activities of Stifel and other firms have been facing unprecedented scrutiny in Oklahoma amid a growing federal inquiry into allegations that Gov. Walters promised state jobs in exchange for major campaign contributions.
The state's media also have reported that dozens of Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents are looking into the relationship between the governor and investment bankers as part of a larger inquiry into alleged campaign finance irregularities and influence peedling.
Also, the Oklahoma, the state's largest daily newspaper, has reported extensively on the after-hours lobbying activities of Stifel Nicolaus and calculated that the brokerage, its political action committee, and employees had contributed some $163,000 to 73 candidates or campaigns across the state since 1986.
THis is not the first time competitors have attributed the success of St. Louis-based Stifel to politics. But investment bankers say the recent publicity has quntified what they have long suspected: In Oklahoma, Stifel is second to none in turning political clout into profits.
"If this is the way the game is played in Oklahoma," said Spencer Burke, principal and manager of public finance at Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis, "then they are the clear winner."
Stifel executives did not return telephone calls, but others are talking.
"Their goals are really more business oriented," siad Craig Stanley, vice president at James Baker & Co. in Oklahoma City, who is active in the Oklahoma Securities Industry Political Action Committee. "They are really trying to influence candidates to get business."
But officials at other brokerages that contribute to politicians, sit on fund-raising committees, and employ lobbyists say the flap is unwarranted.
"I think what you're hearing is a lot of jealousy. I think you are hearing sour grapes," said Jim Bowles, president of Bowles Financial Group Inc. of Oklahoma City. "I personally think that Stifel is getting a pretty bum rap."
Asked why he contributes to political candidates, Mr. Bowles answered, "Because I believe in good government."
While other firms make contributions, Stifel is considered among the most generous. Campaign finance reports show that last year the firm and its officials were key contributors in the 1990 gubernatorial race, giving $17,750 to Republican Bill Price and $25,445 to Gov. Walters.
While the Stifel Oklahoma PAC has donated $28,778.31 of the total, campaign finance records show that two company executives played a major role in funding the political action committee which was formed in 1988.
Stifel Executive Vice Presidents Wayne Von Feldt and Robert Cochran provided a total of $20,000 over the past two-year election cycles. The remainder of money donated by the PAC came from other employees.
Both Mr. Von Feldt and Mr. Cochran, who did not return telephone calls seeking comment, were also large personal contributors to leading state politicians -- often giving the maximum $5,000 donation.
Another frequent large contributor was Stifel Vice PresidentJim Fried, who is also the firm's registered lobbyist.
Of course, Stifel is not the only firm lobbying. State records show at least six other firms have registered lobbyists here: Bowles Financial Group, Leo Oppenheim, and Woolsey & Co., all in Oklahoma; and the Wall Street firms of Dean Witter, Dillon, Read & Co., and Goldman, Sachs & Co.
Many firms say they hire part-time lobbyists to track legislation that affects their business. But officials at small Oklahoma bond houses say they cannot afford to be so politically involved.
"I can't compete that way," said an investment banker at a small firm. "The best I'll do is to take somebody to lunch in front of the Almighty and everybody else."
But others, including Gov. Walters, say the political and financial links do not influence the award of bond business, including the $50 million turnpike issue.
"I'm absolutely outraged at the suggestion that there was something wrong with that [selection] process," Mr. Walters told reporters after allegations were first raised in late May. "A selection was made that was not only competitive, but in the best interest of the state."
Officials at two of the bond firms also were disturbed by the linkage, saying that, unlike his predecessor, Gov. Walters has a hands-off policy on awarding state bond contracts.
"I have not had a personal conversation with Gov. Walters since I called after the [fall] election to congratulate him," said Tom Thompson, partner at T.J. Thompson & Associates and member of the governor's 1994 fund-raising committee. "I'm a little bit incensed when people try to connect the two."
While officials at the firm donated $15,000 to the Walters campaign last year, Mr. Thompson said winning business was not his goal, adding, "As we told David Walters, we are interested in good government."
Robert Lewis, chairman of Leo Oppenheim, said he was not a major contributor.
"I gave $1,300, and I don't consider that a big amount of money," he said. Asked if $16,400 in contributions from company executives to the Walters campaign was meant to influence the award of Oklahoma bond business, Mr. Lewis responded, "Gosh, no. I don't think a political contribution had anything to do with it."
Certainly, the relationship between politics and investment banking has long been a naturally close one.
"Public finance is a political operation by definition," said Paul Woolsey, the retired founder of Woolsey & Co. in Oklahoma City. "Historically, investment bankers have preferred to be in the background. If they were active, it was as facilitators . . . But now they are taking a more visible role."
That role has attracted headlines and prompted some lawmakers to suggest that restrictions on political contributions by the bond industry -- like those in Florida -- might be needed. Not everyone thinks that is a good idea.
"I'm not sure we can completely eliminate issuing authorities from doing business with the people they like," said state Rep. Don McCorkell, D-Tulsa, chairman of the legislative Bond Oversight Committee. "It is a can of worms that there is no end to."